Monday, July 24, 2006

In defence of more roads


Transport experts like me are always misunderstood. People tend to think we fantasise about roads and always want more highways to be built. This is simply wrong. Roads are built for drivers and passengers; there is no need to construct any if there is no demand.

Environmentalists say people can travel by rail rather than road. But that is only partly true. Yes, the vehicle ownership rate in this city is the lowest among developed countries, with only 50 cars for every 1,000 people. But those people will drive where they're going anyway, no matter how convenient our rail networks are.

The key traffic problem in Hong Kong is the congestion between Central and Wan Chai, which causes a knock-on effect in other parts of the island.

It takes a long time to drive through those busy districts in rush hour, and the proposed Central-Wan Chai bypass is badly needed. To me, building this road is like paying a debt that we owe for what we have already built.

We have seen new developments on the Central waterfront, with high-rises such as the IFC towers and old commercial buildings redeveloped into skyscrapers. These created extra traffic, but we did not build any new roads to meet the demand.

Many say traffic jams could be eased if the government used electronic road pricing in busy areas. But that would only slow down the growth of traffic, not reduce it. We know this from experience. The government raised the vehicle tax repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s, but that only slowed the growth in the number of cars: the total traffic volume did not decline.

I am firmly convinced that the congestion between Central and Wan Chai will continue to get worse if no new link is built.

In addition, people get accustomed to road pricing after a few years - if not months. That is why the expert panel under the Harbour Enhancement Committee endorsed the bypass project but urged the government to study electronic road pricing at the same time.

You have to give drivers an option before asking them to change their behaviour by not driving through the downtown area during peak hours.

Like many other people in Hong Kong, I hate to see so many roads, like the Eastern Corridor, occupying our harbourfront.

These things happened because of bad planning. We sat on traffic congestion for too long, and only acted after the situation was unbearable.

Then, with little time left to resolve the problem, officials opted for the easiest choice - building a big highway along the waterfront. This is why we have to build this bypass soon, before the situation gets too bad.

The bypass is not the only highway we need in Hong Kong. There is growing demand for a new, major road linking eastern and western Kowloon. We should not forget the hours of traffic chaos in May, caused when trees and scaffolding fell on Waterloo Road and Prince Edward Road East during a rainstorm.

There are many highways linking Kowloon's north and south, but we rely too much on Lung Cheung Road for east-west traffic.

Again, I am not a fan of highways, even though I have worked in the transport sector for 20 years. I was, first, a transport manager for the former Hong Kong Telecom, then a member of various transport groups. Roads are only built when economic activities need them.

Leung Kong-yui is president of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport in Hong Kong and a member of the Harbour Enhancement Committee. Interview: Quinton Chan is the premier information resource on Greater China. With a click, you will be able to access information on Business, Markets, Technology and Property in the territory. Bookmark for more insightful and timely updates on Hong Kong, China, Asia and the World. Voted the Best Online newspaper outside the US and brought to you by the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's premier English language news source.